Cambodia Loses Last Independent Newspaper

Cambodia’s media landscape has lost its last independent voice, after the Prime Minister shut down the Voice of Democracy (VOD) newspaper this week. The move is particularly troubling as Cambodia looks towards its upcoming general election in July.

On the 9th of February, VOD ran an article on Cambodia’s aid response to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. In the story, they reported that the $100,000 aid package was signed off by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet.

The problem is that foreign aid packages can only be signed off by the Prime Minister. Hun Sen insisted that the article had crossed a line, accused VOD of attacking him and his son and hurting the “dignity and reputation” of the government, and demanded an apology.

Although the VOD complied, expressing regret for the ‘mistake’, on February 12th Hun Sen gave the order to shut the paper down.

While disappointing, his decision isn’t really a surprise to observers or citizens themselves. As the NGO coalition CIVICUS put it, Hun Sen has “overseen a systematic assault on fundamental freedoms in Cambodia over the past decade.”

Ahead of their last state election in 2018, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party dissolved the only major opposition party, and has pursued a repressive campaign to punish any critical voices for years. There are currently more than 50 political prisoners in jail, and over 150 opposition leaders and supporters in exile.

Hun Sen’s crackdown on independent media has been carried out in a similar fashion.

Back in 2017, the Cambodia Daily closed its doors after being handed a huge bogus tax bill. And one year later, the other major independent outlet – the Phnom Penh Post – was sold to a PR firm that had worked for the government.

VOD grew to fill the void these papers left. The Cambodia Daily, Phnom Penh Post and VOD were all papers that published both Khmer and English-language coverage.

Smaller, local Khmer-language media are generally not able to report on controversial topics like corruption and forced evictions, while English-language press used to enjoy more lenience – partially down to a government obligation to appease Western donors. But some observers note that the growing influence of China in Cambodia has shifted this sentiment.

The international community has urged Hun Sen to reconsider closing VOD. Cambodian embassies including Australia, the UK and US as well as EU diplomats have all expressed concern.

In response, Cambodia’s foreign ministry warned them to stay out of internal affairs, and called their statements “politically-driven, prejudiced and biased.”

While the 2018 election was already seen as questionable at the time given Hun Sen’s authoritarian measures, the upcoming elections in July are now destined to be entirely farcical.

“The shuttering of VOD may spell the end for the media environment necessary for credible elections,” says Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.  

“The Cambodian people are the ultimate losers, because they have lost one of the last remaining sources of independent news on issues affecting their lives, livelihoods, and human rights.”

If – or when – Hun Sen wins the election, it will secure him a seventh term in power, putting him well on the path to becoming Asia’s longest-serving leader. He’s ruled over Cambodia since 1985.

Cover photo: “File:Hun Sen (2016).jpg” by Пресс-служба Президента России is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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